A while ago, someone commented on an article that composition is meaningless and people drawing wiggly lines on a photo were pulling the wool over people’s eyes. Initially, I dismissed that as being a naïve comment. Then, I did a little research and found something surprising.
What is composition? For me it is the careful placement of shape, form, tone, and color within a picture that combine to reveal both the subject and the story the photo is trying to tell. We all know that composition is one of the essential building blocks of a successful photo. You master it so you know what layout is best for supporting the story you are trying to tell. With practice, it becomes second nature, and you don’t even have to think about it when you hold your camera to your eye.
As a young child, the photos I took were very symmetrical. Then, when I was about 10 years old, I was on a week-long school trip to the other side of the country. During a long walk, a teacher suggested a few handy hints to improve my photos. Those hints included using the rule of thirds, finding foreground interest, looking for leading lines, and placing people, animals, or recognizable objects in the landscape to give the picture a sense of scale.
I tried each of those techniques, and my photos improved. However, although those rules made sense, I soon realized that they were not hard and fast. Symmetry still worked, as did landscapes without foreground interest, and not all photos required lines to lead the eye, nor did I necessarily want a person in the frame.
Apart from that t10-minute distraction from a hike across Dartmoor, my art lessons at school were not that great. I can’t remember many compositional techniques being taught. However, it is something I have studied a lot since.
When children are aged around four or five, they can all draw and paint to a similar level, and they do so with joy. However, I find it shocking that something happens in the school system where so many lose both the fascination and the ability to progress in art. By senior school, I had lost all interest in art because the teaching wasn’t inspiring. Consequently, I still draw like a 12-year-old. Yet, art is a unique feature of what it is to be human, which I think is why photography is so popular; photography is an accessible way to create art.
Nevertheless, I did pick up a couple of things at school. The idea of complementary and contiguous colors stayed with me. The choice of colors and how they are placed in a photograph is an important part of composition. I learned that blue, yellow, and red were the primary paint colors that could not be broken down into other colors. However, if you mix any two of those colors together you will get the secondary colors:
- Blue + Yellow = Green
- Yellow + Red = Orange
- Red + Blue = Purple
Each of those secondary colors omitted one primary color from its makeup. Green lacks red, orange lacks blue, and purple lacks yellow. Each of those pairs has a complementary color. It is why red poppies stand out in a green field, orange lifejackets are easily seen against the blue sea, and the yellow stamens of some flowers against purple petals are so striking. That’s the reason I hope that the person walking through the lush green landscape is wearing a scarlet coat.
Graphic designers often use complementary color combinations when creating logos because they are noticeable.
On the other hand, contiguous colors are those where the primary color is included in the secondary color’s formation, and those combinations are usually more soothing. Think of the oranges and yellows of an autumnal sunrise or the greens of a cornfield against a blue sky.
According to classic color theory, there is more to the way colors harmonize than where they sit on a color wheel. (If you don’t have a color wheel, there are many apps available; it’s worth downloading one.) The proportions of the different colors that are most effective relate to their brightness. For example, violet is dark, and yellow is bright. Consequently, compositions work well with a large area of purple and a splash of yellow. Red and green are seen as having equal brightness, so they would have equal weight and proportions in a picture. This theory was proposed by the German polymath J.W. von Goethe, who assigned numerical values to hues, and ideal proportions of these colors are suggested by those values. His theory is still considered a practical approach today.
Getting those proportions is all very well when you are wielding a paintbrush. To a certain extent, it is achievable in a studio too. But for those of us who shoot landscapes and wildlife, nature isn’t quite so obliging. However, it doesn’t stop us from looking for those color proportions.
The successful layout of subjects in a photo is much about proportions too. Photos seem to work best when the subjects cohere with certain proportions, often – but not always – when they provide balance. Two small objects on the left will balance a larger one on the right.
The rule of thirds works because it approximates how we see the world around us, paying closer attention to the ground in front of us than to the sky above. If we had evolved for threats to come from the sky, we would observe the world more like meerkats, spending a lot of time looking upwards.
But that isn’t the only way we can work. Having a subject in the middle of the frame is an option. However, sometimes it may seem aggressive towards the subject. That’s because humans evolved as predators. When hunting, animals look directly at their prey. We instinctively know if people are looking at us because there is a section of our brain that detects where other people or animals are looking; it’s useful for our ancestors to know if a lion was staring at them. Other creatures have a similar defense mechanism. This is why, when photographing wildlife, it is best to not stare directly at them beforehand, it will frighten them off because they think you want to eat them.
But what about the golden section? Many push it as being the ultimate compositional rule because of its natural structure. Discovered thousands of years ago, it mimics much of what we see in nature. It is based on the Fibonacci Sequence, named after the 12th-century Italian mathematician, Leonardo Fibonacci.
As an interesting aside, although we attribute it to Fibonacci, he adopted it from the Egyptian mathematician Abū Kāmil Shujāʿ ibn Aslam ibn Muḥammad Ibn Shujā, who lived around 900 AD. However, the sequence was also said to have been discovered by Euclid, somewhere around 300 BCE, Praxiteles knew of it a century earlier than that, and it was also known about in India by the mathemetician Pingala as early as 200 BC. The sequence is a series of numbers where each number is formed by adding together the two numbers before it.
- Start with 1 and 1
- 1 + 1 = 2
- 2 + 1 = 3
- 3 + 2 = 5
- 5 + 3 = 8
- 8 + 5 = 13
- 13 + 8 = 21, and so on.
The way trees grow, snail shells form, and even the proportions of the human body are governed by this sequence. It was an obvious conclusion to draw that there was something pleasing about the proportions, especially when viewed through religious, creationist eyes. Indeed, many major artists throughout history have composed their paintings, sculptures, and architecture based on the golden ratio, derived from the Fibonacci sequence.
But here’s the twist. An experiment in 2015 showed participants a series of patterns and were asked to independently assess the aesthetic appeal of different patterns. No preference was found for golden-sectioned patterns.
…the relationship of the golden section to aesthetic preference… weighs in against the idea of golden sectioning as a major principle underlying aesthetic preference.
So, what’s going on? Why are artists and photographers tied to the idea of the golden section if it isn’t especially more aesthetically pleasing than another layout? Nature uses those proportions because they are efficient, but does it necessarily follow that art should cohere with the same structure? After all, bees create hexagonal cells in honeycombs, snowflakes are based on the same shape, and the compound eyes of many insects are six-sided too. That’s because hexagons, like the Fibonacci ratios, are efficient, yet we are not compelled to adopt six-sided shapes in our photographs or art.
Could it be that this is an example of peer pressure? Great artists throughout history used the golden section because of how it appears in nature, so we should too. The persuasiveness of popularity certainly happens in photography and not just with compositions. For example, a client who is learning to be a pet photographer told me she was going to switch from her brand to another. When I asked why, she said it was because everyone else at the dog shows she shoots at seemed to use that other brand. I demonstrated to her that her camera, or any other brand’s, would do just as good a job. She had a visible wave of relief. She didn’t really want to be the same as everyone else and, furthermore, couldn’t really afford to change.
Although they deny it, people do buy popular brands just because they are popular. They want to be part of the in-crowd and buy the same sneakers, burgers, and cameras as everyone else. That doesn’t mean those brands are the best, just that they have effective advertising. Also, many people want to be seen as being the same as others, even if the products are not as good. The most popular sports shoes don’t fit me, I’ve certainly eaten far better fast food meals than you get from the most popular burger chains, and the most popular camera brands don’t provide what I need a camera to do.
Likewise, the golden section is the market leader in composition, so it follows that people feel compelled to use it. But, just because seashells grow in a certain way, branches on trees subdivide at particular intervals, and Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper to cohere using the golden section, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best option for your photos.
So, perhaps breaking free from the constraints of established compositional techniques will allow us all to grow as photographers.